New hitting coaches need to have steady hands

In-season changes mean improving without being overbearing

New hitting coaches need to have steady hands

Few personnel changes in sports are as paradoxical as hiring a new hitting coach in the middle of a baseball season.

An organization needs a change in its approach at the plate, and yet the first thing a new hitting coach must do is return a sense of normalcy and routine to his players.

Daily routine is of utmost importance in the trade of hitting, and yet to improve, an organization changes one of the most important pieces of a hitter's routine -- his coach.

Jim Eppard is the latest coach to be tasked with walking that tightrope, as the new hitting coach of the Los Angeles Angels. Mickey Hatcher, who held the job for more than 11 seasons, was dimissed last week, amidst the club's offensive struggles.

It's not an uncommon occurrence. In 2011, four hitting coaches were replaced during the season. One such occurrance took place in nearby Los Angeles, where Dave Hansen took over for his friend and mentor Jeff Pentland with the Dodgers.

"It's not fun but you just go through it," Hansen said. "You've got to take into consideration that the players that are in front of you have a solid relationship with the hitting coach that just got let go. "They're still feeling a little bit of responsibility for that. You've got to be sensitive to all of that. If you're not, you may lose your players right away."

That didn't happen with Hansen, whose Dodgers went on a tear after his hiring, though he insisted that "it had really nothing to do with me coming in or the other hitting coach leaving."

Hansen said setting the foundations of strong relationships with his hitters is the most important job ahead of Eppard. He noted that as the former hitting coach of the Angels' Triple-A affiliate, Salt Lake, Eppard should already have a leg up in that department.

"I think the important thing is that we're going to get back to some basics of trying to get good pitches to hit," Eppard said last week. "And when we get those good pitches to hit, we're not going to be hesitating on the swing."

But before any coach can instill a philosophy to his players, he has to earn their trust. The only way to do that, Hansen said, is "over time."

Time isn't a luxury afforded to a team making a change during the season, especially in the case of the Angels -- a club with World Series aspirations that has already fallen eight games back in the American League West -- trailing the Rangers, who changed hitting coaches from Thad Bosley to Scott Coolbaugh last June and went on to win the pennant.

Appointed before the 2010 season, Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire had the benefit of Spring Training. He said he isn't sure how his job would have been different if he began it midseason.

"You've got to know how the pitchers on the other side are going to pitch your team," McGwire said. "To know that, you've got to know your hitters, and that takes time."

Pitchers throw bullpen sessions between starts, during which coaches can tweak mechanics. Hitting coaches, with thei position players playing a game every day, must adjust on the fly.

Then there's what Hansen called the "awkward factor," and the elephant in the room seems to be especially large in Anaheim. It was Hatcher who helped coach the team to its first World Series title in 2002 and who, in 2009, helped set club records in batting average, hits, runs and RBIs.

"You will not find a harder working or more caring coach than Mickey Hatcher," the Angels' Mark Trumbo posted on his Twitter account after Hatcher's dismissal. "Always had my best interest at heart and brought great energy."

While no one can or will blame Eppard for Hatcher's dismissal, it can't be easy to step in as his replacement.

McGwire said upon his arrival with St. Louis, he tried to preach to his players that it was up to them to succeed.

"The sooner the players understand that the game is mental more than physical, they're going to be way better off," McGwire said. "What I mean by mental is in the game preparation and adjustments."

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who spent six years as a hitting and bench coach under Joe Torre in both New York and Los Angeles, added that the most important factor is respecting the players.

"You've got to get to know guys," Mattingly said. "You can't just come in and start throwing stuff at guys that have been in the big leagues for 10 years. You're going to lose them right away. Basically you've got to tread softly at first."

According to Mattingly, hardly anything changes in pregame routines. The drills and the time spent in the cages typically remain the same.

Mattingly went back to his playing days when he always felt as though it was his fault when a hitting coach was let go. When Pentland was dismissed last year, Mattingly offered the players that same message -- that it was a combination of his own fault and the hitters' faults. He told them, as a result, "a good man got fired."

Hansen called the change of a hitting coach "miserable" for a player, who almost always feels responsible. But sometimes, he said, it's inevitable.

For Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto, that was the case this season, as his club ranked 27th in the Majors in runs per game at the time.

"We think the world of Mickey Hatcher -- his work ethic, his enthusiasm for doing the job," Dipoto said. "But at a certain point, it becomes about the results on the field. Offensively, we're having a difficult time getting on base, we're having a difficult time hitting in situations, with runners in scoring position, on down the line. We're all accountable."

All may be accountable, but Hatcher took the brunt of the blame.

As a result, Eppard is faced with the task to -- as Dipoto put it -- "instil a philosophy." He'll have to do so not too fast, but not too slow; not too drastically but not too laissez-faire; not too invasively, but not too sensitively.

A difficult tightrope walk, indeed.

 

AJ Cassavell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.